The Spice Companion

The Spice Companion, by Richard Craze
reviewed 2005-03-25 by Rosemarie L. Coste

Spices and cosmetics have a long history together; many of the materials used to add flavor to food are also frequently used as aromatic and active ingredients in skincare. Cinnamon, sage, saffron, and ginger just begin to hint at the fragrant ingredients equally at home in food and lotion. With that in mind, it makes sense that a project to describe spices and their uses would be addressed equally to formulators of fine cuisine and natural skincare.

The Spice Companion: The Culinary, Cosmetic, and Medicinal Uses of Spices (Quintet Publishing, 1997) is a beautiful book. Its 192 pages are liberally decorated with bright, clear, color photographs of seeds, leaves, oils, and glass bottles; visually, the book is very warm and inviting, making impressive use of the warm colors of the spices themselves.

The author, Richard Craze, is a prolific freelance writer of self-help and how-to books on a variety of subjects; he doesn’t claim any specialized knowledge about spices or cosmetics, and in fact doesn’t speak in the book at all outside the dedication and acknowledgements. That can be fine: a writer’s job can be to investigate a subject and report on it, rather than to discuss personal experiences and discoveries. In such a case, when the writer is not an expert but is reporting the findings of others, a writer’s job is also to ensure that expert sources are acknowledged and readers are given good information about how the information in the book was collected and where to go for follow-up. In The Spice Companion, though, no effort in this direction is visible; it is simply a very pretty book, not to be interrogated beyond its face value. With only ten sources, dated 1964 – 1985, listed under “Additional Reading” and nothing resembling a “Bibliography” or “Notes” section, this is not a book for serious students of traditional medicine.

The book begins with an introduction, subtitled “The History of Spices”, which provides a conventional review of the role played by spices in commerce, exploration, and warfare from a largely European perspective. The second “Spice Directory” section, subtitled, “Spice List by Common Name”, provides a heavily-illustrated listing of spices, their origins and characteristics, culinary and medical uses, some recipes, and some recommendations for harvesting and storage. The third section, “Cooking with Spices”, groups recipes together into sections such as “Spicy Oils”, “Pickling Vinegars”, and “The Chilies.”

The fourth section, “Spices for Beauty, Relaxation, and Health”, contains recipes that may be of interest to the home formulator. It discusses spices as main ingredients in incense, massage oil, potpourri, and perfume. A vanilla perfume recipe is typical of the simplicity of most these recipes: “Slice five vanilla beans and immerse in pure alcohol. Leave for six weeks but shake daily. At the end of this, strain the alcohol off, and you will have a pleasantly refreshing perfume.” The ingredients are readily available, the process is easily described and easily accomplished: this is an ideal home project. At the same time, the recipe for hand cream, oddly and impractically, calls for “4 oz (120 g) spermaceti (from a pharmacist)”. Since natural spermaceti, a liquid oil harvested from the heads of sperm whales, hasn’t been legally bought or sold by any pharmacist since the International Whaling Commission‘s general moratorium on commercial whaling took effect in 1987, the ingredient called for here must be a plant-based substitute for spermaceti, such as cetyl palmitate or jojoba oil; since the author doesn’t bother to identify an ingredient that can actually be obtained, the recipe becomes unusable.

On the whole, more of the recipes seem practical than impractical (though I wonder how readily or willingly most shoppers can locate “caustic soda” for the soap recipe), and some interesting suggestions are offered: nutmeg in a firming lotion; horseradish in milk as an anti-acne cleanser; coriander, honey, and witchhazel as an aftershave. Still, I remain convinced that the best thing about this book is the illustrations, especially the photographs of light streaming through golden oils and colored glass bottles. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying a nice picture book now and then; this is a good one.